It is not often Brede Hangeland’s name makes its way on to the scoresheet, but the Norwegian picks his moments very well indeed. His header against Europa League holders Shakhtar Donetsk was only his second, but both arrived in remarkable results for the Whites.
His first signalled the arrival of the new Fulham under Roy Hodgson when he bundled the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Arsenal, right at the start of Hodgson’s first full season in charge. His second took a full 18 months to come but, being one of the biggest goals in the club’s history, it was worth waiting for. The significance of Hangeland’s neatly glanced opener is that it has put Fulham into the last 16 of a European competition, so far from Hodgson’s initial task at the club – keeping them in the league in almost impossible circumstances – that is must put the manager right up there amongst the very best. Hodgson’s turnaround of the club is remarkable considering his side is far from star-studded, has fewer recognised flair players than many Premier League clubs, and is still several first-team regulars short. On paper – and indeed grass – Donetsk ooze class and were again at times near-impossible to rid of the ball, but Hodgson, after proving to the Premier League last season, is now showing Europe that organisation, teamwork and defence is the best form of attack and can really get a team places.
It was never going to be easy and the relief of every Fulham player and fan proved it wasn’t. But whether the Ukrainian outfit were at their passing best or not, the Whites needed a leader in their well-drilled pack. Hangeland, Hodgson’s first Fulham signing – who has arguably not reached the same heights as he managed for most of last season – realised this and stepped up magnificently. Unmissable as a giant of a man, he was a titan on the pitch last night and led the defence as well as he ever has. If he missed a header throughout the whole 90 minutes then this writer missed it, and he was aware of his teammates’ responsibilities too, mopping up behind the line to clear any danger. It was possibly the adrenaline from his goal which allowed him to be first to every ball in both boxes, but is more likely to be a result of the work-ethic Hodgson – and very few other managers – manages to inspire in all players who turn out for his team. In fact, to credit Hangeland entirely for the win is to discredit those in white around him. Every single player did his job, and when that happens, a Hodgson-drilled unit are very rarely defeated.
Shakhtar, as expected, saw an awful lot of the ball, but for all their movement and intricate passing, very rarely was a player in orange in behind the wall which held strong in front of him. The statistics will read many more shots from the home side, and many, many more corners. But, while statistics don’t lie, they do often fail to tell the full story. Of the 20 shots Shakhtar attempted, more than half were from outside the box and, barring a couple of early saves from Mark Schwarzer, the Fulham stopper was not troubled as much as the statistics suggest, as his defence blocked the majority of the distance efforts. This happens to also be the reason why the corner count reads 17-0 in favour of the hosts – the majority coming from the aforementioned blocked efforts on goal. At the other end, the Whites scored from their only shot on target – clinical finishing being the key to a set up designed to defend well and try to steal a goal. And, even with five times more attempts from the home side, it was the Londoners who had the best chance of the game – Zoltan Gera missing late on which would have made stoppage-time a far more comfortable experience. Fortunately, it mattered little, and the travelling support saw solidarity triumph over superiority – a Hodgson victory indeed.
Fulham fans could surely never have imagined still being in this tournament when March came around, but the European tour continues with the Old Lady of Turin next on the Whites’ hit list. Juventus are laden with history, and a tie against Fulham, who are starting to create their own, will be two games not to miss. Dare the Cottage faithful dream of a second quarter-final of the season? At least now no-one will be ruling them out.
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